Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. ) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.
Opened December, 1979
Oral History Interview with
May 27, 1975
by Richard D. McKinzie
MCKINZIE: Mr. Ambassador, I think that a lot of historians are interested in the circumstances under which people came into Government service. When you were a young man at Princeton, did you intend a career with the State Department?
MERCHANT: No, I had no thought of it. My primary consideration then was to earn enough money to pay off my debts, support my mother, and get married. I had always had in the back of my mind a desire, if and when I could afford to, to in some capacity enter into public service.
In any event, I graduated from Princeton and, in 1926, went into business. I was fortunate and was successful. When Pearl Harbor came, I was asked to come down and take a wartime job.
I was called by a friend who asked me if I was interested (the night of Pearl Harbor), and I came down to Washington the following week to the State Department for a wartime job. I took a wartime leave of absence from my partners in New York and never went back to private enterprise.
MCKINZIE: Mr. Ambassador, after you'd had a wartime assignment, you ended up in postwar France as a counselor for economic affairs with the rank of minister. Could you explain how that happened?
MERCHANT: Well, I guess the explanation really is that the old friend of mine, Harry [Henry
Richardson, Jr.] Labouisse, who was responsible for asking me to come down to Washington in the State Department (he having gone down there about six months earlier, himself, from his law firm in New York), had been sent over to Paris as minister for economic affairs. He came back in the fall of 1946 and suggested my name as his successor. So, I went over there in October, I think it was, of '45.
MCKINZIE: Rather desperate times for the French.
MERCHANT: It was a very, very rough period for them, yes.
MCKINZIE: Until the spring of 1947 when there began to be some planning for the Marshall plan, the French economy had continued to downslide. The reconstruction that everyone anticipated would occur didn't. Do you recall discussions, either in Paris or in Washington, about the
prospects of French recovery without aid? Was there, in your mind, hope that the French would be able to do it themselves?
MERCHANT: Well, I was only there about a year, when Will Clayton asked me to come back, in the fall of '46, I guess. I came back to Washington, worked for Will Clayton, and of course, was intimately involved then in the economic problems of Western Europe and all aspects of possible assistance. That was after the Marshall plan had been conceived.
MCKINZIE: But so far as your own thinking while you were in Paris, did you believe that the French were somehow going to be able to do it, themselves, without American aid?
MCKINZIE: There was interim aid, a loan to France, and all of that.
MERCHANT: Right. No, to me it was inconceivable that the French or the Western Europeans could, with the limited, temporary form of economic assistance that we were authorized to provide for them, achieve their recovery. It required not just a larger amount of assistance, but it required the assurance that for a stated period, extending over years rather than months, assistance would be made available, to give them the self-confidence to put in train the various projects and operations which led to the miraculous recovery which the Marshall plan was responsible for. It wasn't that the Marshall plan was the exclusive force responsible for the recovery. The effort of the Europeans themselves was more important in terms of magnitude, and probably more important in terms of psychology. But it was the Marshall plan that triggered it, gave it its underlying support, and represented a vote of confidence and continuing assistance
from the United States. The combination resulted, I think, in the extraordinary result.
MCKINZIE: Under Secretary Clayton had a view of what ought to be, if I can put it that way. He had the view that there ought to be, if not free trade, something fairly close to it, and more than that he was a strong proponent of European integration. Did you share his ideas at that time?
MERCHANT: Not totally. I don't think, at any point, I was a proponent of political integration. I was satisfied in my own mind that economical cooperation was essential, but, as best I can recall my attitude then, I was extremely dubious that political integration was achievable or, in terms of the ultimate result, necessarily desirable.
MCKINZIE: I gather, Will Clayton, at every opportunity, did push the idea.
MERCHANT: He did. And I don't want to imply that I was a rebel, a subverter, or someone who was totally opposed to it, but I had my own interior doubts as to whether this was certainly feasible.
MCKINZIE: Did you think that the French could have been pushed into it? I talked to a Belgian economist once who said that if the United States had been tougher, the United States could have forced at least some kind of economic integration, if not political integration. Did you have the feeling that the French themselves were amenable to some move toward economic integration in order to receive U.S. aid?
MERCHANT: No, really quite to the contrary. I think the French were prepared to cooperate within economic limits, as indeed they did, for example, in the Schumann plan, under the
Marshall plan, under the Common Market. In my judgment at the time, and in retrospect, what destroyed the very highly desirable movement to a closer economic integration was what seemed to me the unwise and abortive effort to create the EDC [European Defense Community]. Control of national armed forces, I felt then and I think now, is the real essence of national sovereignty, and the effort to combine the armed forces was, if not impossible in the first half of the 20th century, certainly grossly premature.
MCKINZIE: But did not the effort to create the EDC serve political rather than military purposes? The creation of the EDC would have been one more step towards the integration that the proponents of Will Clayton's ideas would have wanted.
MERCHANT: Oh, that's certainly true, but it would have involved taking that last and final bite of the cherry before you'd broken the skin on
your first bite or your second bite, really.
MCKINZIE: In 1945 and 1946 while you were in Paris, the French representation in the United States, that is, the French Ambassador particularly, was trying to present a very dismal picture of life in France and the need for U.S. assistance. The story is told, for example, of the Ambassador's wife who wore the same dress throughout the social season and served at dinner parties that awful gray bread that was made out of some ersatz sort of material, at least not the traditional stuff. The implication was that the whole French system was on the edge of collapse and that if something wasn't done, there was going to be a social upheaval, a revolution of some sort. Were you concerned about this social situation in France, the possibility that the Communists might win at the polls? Or was that a major problem, so far as you were concerned? The Ambassador, at least,
used that here in the United States.
MERCHANT: Yes. Well, I don't think, from my viewpoint in Paris, that the prospects were quite that alarming or dreary. Certainly, the economic situation and the prospects were dreary, but I never felt that the political risks were as high as what you suggest would indicate. I traveled through France a good deal in those days of '45 and '46. The economy was pretty dreary, that's certainly true, but France, of course, basically has always been and was even then a rich country (I mean economically). It's agriculturally a rich country, enormously rich soil, hard-working, skilled farmers. And when you got out of Paris in